Last year, Yung Lean, aka Jonatan Leandoer Håstad, made a formidable return to the world of music with his latest (and in his opinion, greatest) album to date, Stranger. The album felt like a maturation for Håstad, no longer a teenager but an artist more sure of his own identity and where he wants to be in life. With 2017 and the album behind us, Yung Lean is looking forward to the year ahead and everything that it will bring—including (possibly) musical theatre—and we sat down with the Swedish rapper to go through it all.
Over the course of half an hour, Yung Lean opened up about the various facets of his art—his music, his painting and his style—how he approaches each medium differently, and how he first found the confidence to express himself in any way he could. Principally, he attributes the earliest moments of creative nurturing to his great uncle who encouraged him to create anything with his hands and to let his imagination run wild. His parents, though not artists themselves, were also encouraging and gave Håstad the space and freedom to explore.
We also touched on the purposes of his art, for example the therapeutic nature of painting, as well as the reasons why he needed to find a therapeutic outlet. Having found fame in his late teens with Unknown Memory, Håstad has found it harder and harder to deal with being constantly recognised and approached. Though he seems to be in a good headspace these days, the pressure of public life is just as potent. Still, as we found out, if the life of a rapper gets too much, he may just move into musical theatre.
What was your childhood like? Was there someone in your life when you were growing up that encouraged you to be artistic?
I had a lot of space as a kid. My mother worked with human rights, for the government and my dad had a book publishing company, but they weren’t really musical. I did have a great uncle who was a carpenter, though, and whenever we came to his house he’d always make all these ‘inventions’, he called them. I would take a Coca Cola can and turn it into a crossbow or whatever I wanted. He always told me I can do anything. He had a shed full of things and we built all sorts of things together. I was an only child for five years until my sister came and during that time I had a lot of space and I could basically do what I wanted. If I wanted to sew some pants my mom would help me. My parents were definitely encouraging with creativity.
Was there a moment where they realised this wasn’t just you expressing yourself, this was your life?
I kept it a secret for a while. I wouldn’t tell them when I uploaded videos. They knew I had a studio in the basement, but they had no idea what was going on. Then there was an article and it mentioned my dad’s name. The girl who wrote the article knew my father and she said “Yung Lean can’t go out now because he’s on parole,” which was a lie, “and guess who his father is! Swedish author and publisher Kristoffer Leandoer.” Dad was at home googling his own name and he found it. So he called me and he was super angry about the fact that it had anything to do with drugs and his name. But when I came home I heard him listening to all the songs and liking them, so then it was all ok. And my mother didn’t believe in any of it. She thought it was very cute but didn’t believe it. Even when I got booked for my first show in Gothenburg she still didn’t believe it until she saw it. Then when I showed her footage she was proud.
Why did you keep it a secret to begin with?
I don’t know. I didn’t feel like uploading something and running to my parents. I wanted it to come naturally.
So it wasn’t that you were worried they’d tell you to get a job?
“I don’t have too many comparisons to Eminem, but that ‘what the fuck’ effect is what made people keep coming back to my music.”
When you first emerged, it felt like everyone connected with what you were doing really, really quickly. Why do you think that was?
I think there was just a moment in time where it was perfect for Yung Lean to emerge to the world. I don’t know if a lot of people needed that or what they were listening to at the time that it made so much sense for me to come out as an artist at that time, but something clicked. Someone compared it to when Eminem released his first LP. Everyone was like “What the fuck? What’s this?” But you wanted to hear more. I don’t have too many comparisons to Eminem, apart from the colour of my skin, but I think that ‘what the fuck’ effect is what made people keep coming back music.
I remember seeing you perform at the Barbican around that time and it stood out because it was so new. Also, because they shut it down when everyone rushed the stage.
Yeah, the people who fixed the party were super posh and they were like, “the Barbican stage has never been rushed. It is the first time it’s ever happened.”
Will they let you come back?
I don’t know. I hope so. Maybe I’d have to come back and do a theatre reenactment of what happened at the first concert.
“THEY ALWAYS WANT SOMETHING FROM YOU LIKE IT’S THE MOST NATURAL THING IN THE WORLD.”
Ever since then it’s felt like the UK’s had a really big connection to your music. Is it the same in Sweden? Are there other countries that connect with it more?
UK is definitely one of the biggest. The biggest shows are here and in Stockholm, New York, Paris and some other places in Europe. Some places it’s like a cult following, some places I’m just an artist.
What’s the rest of the States like, besides New York?
Some of the places are really great to perform, you feel like a rockstar. You’re hanging out in LA and Justin Bieber wants to party. You get this rockstar vibe over there, but in the UK people are genuinely into music. There’s a huge culture of music and bands and whatnot so I guess people here take music very seriously. They’re active fans and active listeners.
Do you feel famous? Can you walk down the street without getting bothered?
Nah, that’s the horrible thing about my job. I have to pay a huge price to express myself. You get people asking to take photos all the time, you can’t ride the subway… I still ride the subway but there’s always people sneaking photos or coming up to you. If you’re pissed off one day and someone gets right in your face and asks you for a photo it can fuck up your day.
Does it get easier to deal with? Are you getting used to it?
I’m getting used to it but it strikes me the further my career goes, the more people there are asking for photos or coming up to me in the streets. It just gets worse. Just when you think you can deal with it, it just gets worse. There’s nothing you can do, though. If you feel this connection to someone and you listen to this person all the time then of course you want to go up and say something if you see them in the street. I would too. It’s like meeting Santa Claus. I’d say hello to Santa Claus. I’d take a selfie with him.
I guess some fans forget that connection listening to your music is one way.
Yeah. They always want something from you like it’s the most natural thing in the world.
There must be some positives, right? What’s the best fan experience you’ve had?
There was one fan I met, who was in a wheelchair, and he was wearing a Rick & Morty t-shirt. This was in Texas. And his brother asked me for a photo so I said sure. Then he says “He only loves two things: Rick & Morty and Yung Lean.” And his brother was so excited. That was cute.
“It’s always had a really strong presence in music history and it’s always felt youthful.”
You paint a lot—does that help to distract from the downsides of fame?
To be honest, I’ve always done it since I was a kid, but I gave up on it for a while and then came back to it recently.
What made you come back to it?
It was the first time I got out of the mental hospital and my friend told me I should paint. I didn’t really have anything to do so I painted. I was thinking of selling my paintings but, to be honest, it was just nice to paint. It’s very relaxing, meditative.
So what kind of headspace are you in when you paint as supposed to making music?
I guess the feeling is the same, which is what I like about both of them. It’s like reaching really deep into your mind and losing control between what’s real and what’s not. You’re expressing yourself in the purest art forms, painting and singing.
How would you describe the style of your painting?
It’s more childish than my music. My music is more developed quite a lot. It’s kind of caught up with my years. While my painting’s still at the Jonathan level. I’ve had no education in painting, so that’s why.
“Ever since I was a kid, I had the urge of expressing myself in any way.”
You’re very into fashion and style as well. How does that tie into your art and your music?
I think those are also very different forms of expression. Ever since I was a kid, I had the urge of expressing myself in any way. Like many kids, you want try on different clothes, different looks. I was kinda punky for a while, I had makeup under my eyes. Then I started wearing more baggy stuff. But I would always just find stuff. I don’t know how related they are. It’s just down to how you feel, which is the same with music. For example, I might want to go into a fantasy world or I might want to make a hard drug song. For my new tour I'm actually being supported by Converse. I can't say too much more, but we have more projects lined up for this year, too.
How did the work with Converse come about? Why did you choose to work with them?
It’s always had a really strong presence in music history and it’s always felt youthful. Many respected artists wore them on stage that came from the underground scene just like we did, which feels close to us. We’d been looking to do something together for a minute with a friend of ours that worked at Nike but kinda never happened. When he jumped over to Converse and started telling us about the direction they were headed it just felt like something I wanted to be a part of.
In terms of sound, where is Yung Lean at right now?
Right now it’s at the Pet Sounds. To me, it feels like it can’t get any better. ‘Stranger’ was my Pet Sounds. I guess it can get better, but to me I feel it was quite a big point in my career. To me, it’s an iconic album. It’s hard to outdo that now, but give it some time and there’ll be something extraordinary.
So you’re not worried about topping it for the next album?
I mean, you can’t really compare them because one doesn’t exist yet.
How have your musical tastes changed since the first album?
I guess it kinda changes monthly, or even daily, and then falls into the same box. Sometimes I can be only listening to Percy Sledge, Al Williams, maybe the Talking Heads. Then it’ll be Three 6 Mafia, Young Buck. I guess it all falls into one box of inspiration.
Do Talking Heads and Young Buck inspire you in the same way?
I think they do. They both paved the way in their respective genres. They both kinda have the same attitudes. It’s strange to talk about Talking Heads and Young Buck as being the same but they really are.
Could you see yourself bringing in a live band or live instruments into your music?
I have a two side projects where I have real instruments like guitar and piano. I don’t know if those projects work better with real instruments. I don’t really like when there’s guitars and trap drums, like an emo rap song. I think you should go all the way with it. It sounds conservative but the blend just sounds too modern and too forced.
“‘Stranger’ was my Pet Sounds.”
So what is your overall plan for Yung Lean? Are there long-term goals you want to achieve?
I’d like to either make a film or write a script or get into acting. Maybe one day I will open my own amusement park. That would be sick. I’d also like to make a soundtrack for a film. As for Yung Lean, ten albums would be something to aim for. After ten albums I can reevaluate my life. Maybe then I’ll settle down.
What kind of films do you want to make? Have you written anything?
I started on a script. I had two drafts. It was a strange gangster drama. But it hasn’t gone far enough yet. It’s mostly just ideas. I also had an idea from watching Spinal Tap. They have this rock opera about Jack the Ripper called ‘Naughty Jack’. There’s a serial killer in Sweden called the Laser Man so I would like to do a rock opera about the Laser Man.
And would you do the soundtrack for that too?
Of, course. “Saucy Laser Man! Da-da-da!”
I’d watch that. Thanks, Yung Lean.